Easter sweeps into Norway
Norwegians embrace traditions and celebrate spring
Editor’s note: Only a few weeks ago, I reached out to writer Tove Andersson in Olso and asked her if she would be willing to share a history of Norwegian Easter traditions, past and present, with the readers of The Norwegian American. She responded enthusiastically with this article, but sadly much has changed in Norway and the entire world with the coronavirus pandemic. While all of Norway is currently under lockdown, Easter in Norway will be different this year. Yet the spirit of the season will live on for all Norwegians and Norwegian Americans, with the light and beauty of spring, as the joy, love, and hope of Easter fills our hearts.
Easter in Norway is a celebration of winter letting go and the arrival of spring.
The snow has already melted in Oslo, the sun shines stronger, and the flowers are already emerging.
A peculiar Norwegian tradition during Easter is that many of us travel to the mountains and enjoy the last of the winter on skis and to celebrate the end of the dark season on glittering snow.
City holidays during Easter always include a film at the cinema. New films are announced a week before Easter. But whether you are in town or on the “Easter mountain,” Easter means games, Easter quizzes called “Påskenøtter,” Easter crime stories, and Easter decorations, such as painted eggs, fluffy chickens, and feathers.
Norway has the world’s longest Easter holiday
Easter is the oldest and most important holiday of the Christian church in many countries and has been celebrated in Norway for more than 1,000 years. The celebrations start with Palm weekend, the weekend before Easter.
In the past, Easter was a quiet time, but now there are open cafeterias, concerts, films and a vibrant city life available for those who do not have a cabin in the mountains. Some also choose to spend their holiday in other countries. Roads out of the capital are full of cars with ski racks, children in the backseat with iPads and games, books, and high expectations for days of cross-country or downhill skiing.
It has been a long time since Norwegians started Easter with a fasting belly and reading of the Bible for hours. Some even filled their shoes with sand and walked in them until their feet bled. Today, most Norwegians do not even know of these old traditions as we eat our fastelavnsboller, pastries with whipped cream eaten 47 days before Easter but not followed by the traditional fast.
We still worship the sun at Eastertime
On our Sunday walks, we pick twigs with signs of spring, decorate the house with daffodils (called påskeliljer or Easter lilies in Norway) and twigs, as we uphold ancient symbols of fertility and spring.
In Norway, the most important Easter symbols are the cross, eggs, chickens, and the colors yellow and light green from newly sprouted leaves. As an Easter color, yellow is especially typical for the Nordic countries and has grown more popular over the last 70 years. If we have a tablecloth, a vase, napkins or candles in yellow, this is the time to bring them out to adorn our tables. Some may even still have a broom for the Easter witches.
On Thursday night before Easter, legend has it that the witches took off to Blokksberg Mountain. It was important for a broom to be ready for them at the fence. Otherwise, the witches would take a horse, cow, or goat from the farm. In Sweden today, human-sized dolls are hung on the lampposts on a broomstick, and many Norwegians see them as we take off for Sweden to do our Easter shopping, also called svenskehandel.
Sun on the mountaintop is a healing experience
It is possible that the Norwegian tradition of traveling by thousands to the mountains, sitting for hours in a queue both out of the city and back to the city, goes back to the ancient belief that the sun behaved unusually on Easter Day in joy of Jesus’ resurrection. This belief is no longer present in most people’s minds, but spending time outdoors in a mountain area, sometimes skiing with shorts and a top.
People once even believed that if one could get the sick up on a mountaintop, they would feel better, with the healing power of the sun as it rose on Easter morning.
Now, we bring the sun into our homes and cottages with the color of yellow. On Palm Sunday, Norwegian houses are decorated with fluffy willow buds. Today, we can register the use of palm leaves and palm processions on a rebound as symbolic bearers of the Protestant church service.
Easter is the oldest Christian holiday
Each day during the Easter holiday tells the story of what happened in Jerusalem some 2,000 years ago, during a week that has had an impact on all of humanity. Ash Wednesday traditionally marks the beginning of Lent, a 40-day season of reflection, fasting, and celebration. In Norway, spanking on Good Friday was also a fairly common practice, as people suffered in solidarity with Jesus—but this was more playful than serious.
Easter Eve (Holy Saturday) is the main day of celebration, with good food, Easter eggs, and decorated paper eggs filled with sweets for the kids. Grown-ups read good books during their vacation, preferably crime. Probably no one reads more crime than Norwegians at Easter.
Yellow Easter is modern
This is a relatively new tradition in Norway. It began roughly toward the end of the 19th century but increased after the Second World War. The inspiration originally came from 18th century Germany, but it came to Norway via the United Kingdom, Anne Kristin Moe, conservator at the Norwegian Folk Museum explains.
Over time, Easter has become more and more yellow. The same is true throughout Northern Europe.
Few traditions are attached to Easter Sunday. This is the day that skis, sleeping bags, and food are packed, as families return home and prepare for work, with one day of Easter left, Easter Monday. In today’s Norway, Easter is still the biggest Christian holiday, although church attendance is higher on Christmas Eve.
The Easter calendar
- Palm weekend (Palmesøndag) is the start of the Easter celebration.
- Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday after Palm Sunday are workdays for some, but there is a school holiday throughout the week.
- Maundy Thursday (Skjærtorsdag) is when the official holiday starts.
- Good Friday (Langfredag) is still considered to be an important holiday.
- Easter Eve/Holy Saturday is not a public holiday, and the shops are open.
- Easter Sunday in Norway starts with a good Easter breakfast that includes eggs.
- Easter Monday is a relatively calm day.
This article originally appeared in the April 3, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.